Shutting Down Guantanamo

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to order the closing of the controversial US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by January of next year.  The prison and the harsh interrogation policies used against terrorist suspects, which many have described as torture, have elicited widespread criticism from the international community and many Americans.  US leaders realize the deleterious effect that the existence of the facility and the indefinite detentions of prisoners there have had on America’s image abroad.  But shutting down Guantanamo poses several problems for the Obama administration.


The US has essentially three options for dealing with the detainees.  One is to ship them back to their countries of origin.  However, many of those nations have refused to accept the men because they fear that they will cause violence and instability.  Some governments, such as that in Yemen, are weak and American officials are concerned that they will be unable to keep the suspected militants locked up or rehabilitate them; the escape of dozens of Al Qaeda members from a Yemeni prison last year validate these fears.  Releasing the prisoners also poses the risk that some of them will resume jihadist activities and threaten American lives and interests.


A second option is to try the suspects in civilian courts.  Doing so would require government prosecutors to compile enough evidence to convict the accused, which may be difficult given the nature of their capture and the higher standard that must be met in civilian courts vis-à-vis military tribunals.  Open trials could also reveal sources and methods used by US intelligence agencies and put informants in jeopardy.  In addition, many Americans do not want Al Qaeda members in their communities even if they are behind bars, a political issue that may dissuade elected officials from pursuing that course of action.


A third option is to keep Guantanamo open and detain the prisoners there until a better solution than the ones proposed is devised.  It appears unlikely that the Obama administration would be willing to consider a policy that would require it to reverse its position and thereby alienate the international community and a large segment of the American electorate.


There are no good options when it comes to the problem posed by the detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo.  The administration will therefore have to choose the least bad option, which may be to return some of the detainees to their home countries and try others in US courts.


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